Another step to making driverless vehicles on Singapore roads a reality

The newly-formed Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore (CARTS) will provide guidance on the research, development and deployment of such driverless vehicles.

driverless in spore
Universities in Singapore such as the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University have already begun test-bedding driverless vehicles within their campuses Image: NTU

The Republic moved a step closer to the prospect of having driverless vehicles on the roads on Wednesday (Aug 27), when the Ministry of Transport (MOT) announced a new committee to oversee the project.

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said the ministry will be studying ways to harness Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology for the country’s land transport system in the coming decades.

Mrs Teo said: “For nearer commutes, people can walk or cycle, and I remember for Biopolis, we tested the Segway as well. For longer intra-town commutes, the idea is that people can just hop onto an AV pod that runs through an underground network, and this is almost like a personalised MRT.”

Research, development and deployment of AV technology

The 17-member Committee on Autonomous Road Transport for Singapore (CARTS) will be headed by Mr Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Transport, and will comprise members from the relevant planning agencies. In addition, a number of international experts, academics and industry members have been invited to join CARTS.

MOT said that over the next two years, the committee will provide thought leadership and guidance on the research, development and deployment of AV technology and AV-enabled mobility concepts for the city-state, and study the associated opportunities and challenges.

There will also be some regulatory issues to work through, like who is responsible in the case of an accident. From January next year, a network of roads in the one-north area will be used as test routes for AVs.

The roads are expected to be announced by end-2014. These roads will not be closed, and both AVs and normal vehicles are expected to use the roads together. In 2016, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) will also carry out trials.

Mr Lim Chuan Poh, chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, said: “One obvious way of test-bedding is just to use a fixed route which allows technical testing to be done. But I think in order to fully benefit from the test bedding, we need to bring in actual human interface, interaction with the vehicle, and you actually want to load it with some amount of utilisation. 

“So I suggested to them that we should actually look at a Biopolis-Fusionopolis commute with A*STAR members using the platform on a day-to-day basis. Along the way, we will discover a lot of other issues. For instance, road kerbs, traffic lights and other things apart from humans that may cause obstruction - how do you deal with them?” 

The challenge is socialising the technology to make it acceptable and comfortable for humans

Town planning

The National University of Singapore (NUS), in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has also been testing a fleet of autonomous golf buggies and an AV within the NUS campus. Mrs Teo said that later this year, some of those buggies will be tested on the footpaths of the Chinese and Japanese Gardens at the Jurong Lake District. The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is also testing an autonomous shuttle bus at JTC’s Cleantech Park and the NTU campus. Lessons learnt from these trials will also shape Singapore’s new towns.

Mrs Teo said: “We need to incorporate AV into future town-planning - Singapore will be the first country to actively do so. Our dream is to design a totally new mobility concept for a green-field, future town that is about a decade to two away in the making, at which time, we think AV technology would have matured sufficiently. Such a new mobility concept could, for example, be centred around walking and cycling as the main modes of intra-town travel, supplemented by environmentally-friendly, AV-enabled point-to-point type of public transport.

“In our dream town, its surface would be dominated by green and open spaces for residents and pedestrians, and free of the smoke, noise, congestion and safety concerns posed by vehicles today. If we want to turn this dream into reality, we must start our visioning exercise now, well before the first blueprints for the town take shape and the first piles are knocked into the ground.”

Mr Lim said there may be concerns of safety, but AV technology has been around for many decades - whether in the form of driverless MRT trains or space rovers on Mars. He said the challenge is socialising the technology to make it acceptable and comfortable for humans.

There will also be two workgroups supporting CARTS’ work. The first - jointly chaired by Mr Lee Chuan Teck, Deputy Secretary (Land and Corporate), Ministry of Transport, and Ms Chang Hwee Nee, Deputy Secretary (Planning), Ministry of National Development - will envision “what AV-enabled towns in Singapore in the future could look like, recommend AV-enabled mobility concept plans for such towns, and chart a roadmap for implementation”.

The second workgroup, chaired by Land Transport Authority (LTA) Chief Executive Officer Chew Hock Yong, will focus on regulation and implementation. This includes determining a safety, regulatory and liability framework for AVs on public roads and spaces, and R&D and test-bedding of AV technology and concepts in Singapore.

“AV technology has the potential to transform the way we travel, and also the way we live. It is important that we study the technology and how we can harness it for future mobility, even as we continue to work hard to improve the current transport system,” said Mrs Teo.

Affecting car ownership

AVs may well transform the face of car ownership. A survey by the LTA shows that many cars are used just twice on weekdays - to the office and back home. If AVs can be redeployed for other uses while people are at work, car sharing, rather than car ownership, may be more prevalent in future.

Dr Adsool Vikrant Arun, an organic chemistry scientist who works in one-north, said: “I would totally use it rather than owning my own car, especially in Singapore. I am guessing if it is owned by many people, the cost would be substantially down, and we won’t have to pay the COE and it would be affordable.”

Mr Teo Wen Shiun, a biomedical science laboratory officer who also works in one-north, said: “If I am at work, I just park my car at the carpark, so it is not in use. So although it is not in use, you are still paying for the carpark charges and some carparks are pretty expensive, perhaps in the Orchard area. So it is a pretty good idea to share a car.”

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology using Singapore transport data in 2011 has suggested that AVs can potentially reduce passenger vehicles here to a third, from 900,000 to 300,000.

The members of the CARTS committee are:

  • Mr Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Transport
  • Mr Lee Chuan Teck, Deputy Secretary (Land and Corporate), Ministry of Transport
  • Mr Chew Hock Yong, Chief Executive, Land Transport Authority (LTA)
  • Ms Chang Hwee Nee, Deputy Secretary (Planning), Ministry of National Development
  • Dr Cheong Koon Hean, CEO of Housing and Development Board (HDB)
  • Mr Ng Lang, CEO of Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)
  • Prof Lui Pao Chuen, Advisor to National Research Foundation
  • Prof Raj Thampuran, MD for Agency for Science, Technology and Research
  • Mr Peter Ho, Senior Advisor to Centre for Strategic Futures, Public Service Division
  • Mr Yeoh Keat Chuan, MD for Economic Development Board (EDB)
  • Ms Jacqueline Poh, MD for the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore
  • Prof Emilio Frazzoli, Lead Principal Investigator at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART)
  • Prof Carlo Ratti, Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Partner, Carlo Ratti Associati
  • Mr Lo Kien Foh, MD for Continental Automotive Singapore
  • Mr Yasuhiro Kakihara, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Toyota Tsusho Asia Pacific
  • Mr Barry Einsig, Global Transportation Executive at Cisco Systems
  • Dr Rory Gallagher, Director for International Programmes, UK Behavioural Insights Team

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